Also by Michelle Jo Quinn
About the Author
Copyright © 2016 by Michelle Jo Quinn
All rights reserved.
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For my large, loud and loving family
December, last year…
Taylor Wagner was halfway through his second cup of coffee that morning when a nearly naked woman walked casually to her front yard, seemingly oblivious to the cold, and dumped what looked like men’s suits and shirts on the snow-dusted grass.
Just another day in the neighborhood, he thought to himself and said aloud, “Minnie, are your neighbors moving?”
His sister had just moved into the last four-bedroom, eco-friendly everything, craftsman model in the exclusive community of Pine Groves Estates. The house was beautiful, a dream homemade for a family with kids and pets, boasting nearby Award-winning private schools and amenities befitting a community like Pine Groves. Much too stuffy for a city boy like Taylor, but he would never admit that unless he wanted his sister’s wrath put upon him.
Minnie joined him by the bay windows, which looked out to an expansive yard, and slipped her hand around her brother’s arm. “I don’t think so. Nancy didn’t say a thing.” Taylor’s right eye twitched at the mention of the snooty real estate agent who’d sold the house to his sister for a heavily-discounted price.
They shared Taylor’s coffee—much to his dismay—while the woman next door continued to pile more clothes and a laptop in front of her house.
“Maybe she’s having a yard sale?”
“In the middle of December?” Taylor sneered at his empty cup then at his older sister.
Minnie shuffled by his side then quipped, “I guess there’s no better time than now to meet our new neighbors.”
“Yeah and when you come back, you can make me another cup of coffee.” He raised his cup.
Minnie untangled her hand from his arm and gave him a smack on the back of his head, which anyone would think impossible given their significant height difference. But years of practice had made Minnie an expert in inflicting pain on her younger brother. “This is my house, you know. Before you leave, I’m sure you’ll have eaten the entire contents of my fridge.” She snuck back into the kitchen to let her partner know what was happening outside.
Meanwhile, Taylor continued to enjoy the view up front—odd as it may seem. The woman was gorgeous, at least from where he stood. A little on the short side but it didn’t stop Taylor from practically drooling at the shape of her bare legs and the tantalizing way she swayed her hips when she strutted down the laneway. From what he could tell, all she had on was a sheer pink camisole with matching shorts, both edged with white lace, a silk robe that she hadn’t bothered to tie closed, and a pair of the ugliest, clunkiest boots he’d ever seen.
“I’ll be back.” His sister waved by the door after slipping her feet in sneakers and zipping up her winter coat.
Jill, Taylor’s soon-to-be sister-in-law, claimed the spot next to him, offering a fresh cup of coffee. “What’s going on?” Taylor pointed out the window. “Aw hell, did we move next to crazy people?”
Taylor chuckled. “Looks like it.”
“Damn. I knew this place was too good to be true.” Jill shook her head. “Oh lawdy, she hasn’t got any clothes on! What do you reckon’s goin’ on there?”
“Can’t even venture a guess.”
They watched Minnie pause in front of the other woman and extend a hand. The neighbor smiled brightly at her and chatted with Minnie as though her actions were anything less than ordinary. She might be missing a few screws in the noggin’, but Taylor thought she was sexy nonetheless. Her curly red hair bounced over her shoulders as she kept adding to her pile.
“Should we go outside?” Jill asked.
“I’m way ahead of you.” Taylor placed his cup on the side table and grabbed a scarf off the rack by the door. Guessing they wouldn’t stay out long, he decided to forgo his jacket. He and Jill stepped out into the crisp suburban morning, craning their necks to see if they could hear the conversation.
“Do you need help with anything?” Minnie asked the adorable redhead.
“Oh, I’m almost done, but I have to get the TV out here,” the woman replied in a sweet, and surprisingly calm voice.
Taylor leaned his head toward Jill, but kept his gaze on his sister and the pretty woman. “Did I hear it right? TV?”
They caught the redhead’s attention, and she waved in their general direction before walking back into her house. Minnie looked over her shoulder with obvious confusion on her face and shrugged. Not a minute later, they heard a dragging noise coming from inside the much grander red brick home. And the redhead in pink lingerie and ugly boots appeared by the double doors, struggling with a massive flat screen TV.
“Holy shit!” rang through the air as Taylor, Jill and Minnie yelled in unison. By now, the (definitely crazy) redhead had garnered the attention of other neighbors. Some stepped out of the comforts of their homes, decorated for the holidays, while others stayed in, looking out their windows.
Minnie ran to the woman’s aid and moved the gargantuan TV beside the pile of clothes, shoes and several other devices on the lawn.
“What is she doing?” Jill murmured beside Taylor and advanced forward.
“Who? The crazy chick or Minnie?”
Before Jill could reply, a shiny new SUV came peeling down the quiet street and screeched to a stop at the end of the driveway.
“Shit. This doesn’t look good,” Jill muttered. “Minnie!” She waved at her fiancée, who’d thankfully had enough smarts to step way back from the redhead and the collection of men’s clothes on the lawn.
“What the hell are you doing, Jordana?” A man dressed in a suit and tie yelled as he unfolded out of the vehicle.
The woman—Jordana—ran to the portico, grabbing a small red container, and returned to the pile. She poured clear liquid all over the items on the lawn.
There was no mistaking the acrid scent of kerosene that overpowered the clean smell of winter air.
Whatever was about to happen couldn’t be good. Taylor jogged to the neighbor’s lane and grabbed his sister’s hand.
“Hi, honey! How’s work?” Jordana bit out through gritted teeth. She fought the tears prickling the back of her eyes and batted her lashes at her husband.
She’d given Jerry six years of her life. Six damned years. She’d followed him from the west coast, leaving her family behind, sacrificed her own dreams and had given up hopes of ever having children. Because he was the focus of their relationship, of their lives. His needs had to come first. He had to make it through years of bullshit business school and land the job he’d wanted.
“Is that…” He paused and raised a hand, his eyes widening at the container in her hand. “Are you out of your damn mind?”
Jerry looked around him and ran a hand through thinning hair. “That’s my new TV! And my Mac! Jordana, this is beyond insane.”
My, my, my…it was all she could hear. Nothing was theirs. Everything was his.
Jordana could almost discern the throbbing vein on his forehead while he took big steps toward her. His hands clasped in tight fists at his sides. He wouldn’t dare hit her, not in front of all these people. Jerry was all about his image—the big house in the yuppie neighborhood, the flashy cars, her fake breasts—they were all his idea. All for show. He wouldn’t dare hit his wife in public; she was sure of it. Then again, she didn’t think he would ever sleep with a much older woman—his boss.
“Take another step, Jerry. I dare you.” Jordana stuffed a hand in the pocket of her silk robe and pulled out the matches. She raised her trembling hands. “How could you sleep with her? You said you didn’t even like her? You called her a stuffy old hag.”
Jordana took a little bit of victory when he winced, but as expected, Jericho denied it all. “What are you talking about?” His jaw dropped when she slipped a matchstick from the box. “Jordie, baby…c’mon, babe… It’s me Jer-bear. I don’t know what you think’s going on but I’m not sleeping with anyone.”
Throwing her head back, Jordana let out a dry, humorless laugh. “Well, gee, Jer-bear. Why didn’t you say so?” Jordana tilted her head to one side and dropped her hands for a moment, and as soon as Jerry’s shoulders dropped in relief, she said, “But wait a second—” and feigned excitement. She pulled out a stack of pictures from her pocket. She’d printed them earlier after she’d wiped all the tears off her cheeks, after she’d read the back and forth emails, the stomach-gurgling flirting between her husband and his superior who was way into her fifties and who had the personality of a stick insect. Jordana had cried and cried until something snapped. A plan had formed in her head.
Jordana sent a text message to Jerry while he was at work, telling him he’d better get home before he found all his precious belongings destroyed. She’d dragged all his suits—those she’d lugged weekly to the dry cleaners, the shirts she’d painstakingly ironed every Sunday, his laptop which he’d mistakenly left behind, his beloved 60-inch curve TV—his Christmas gift to both of them despite knowing she never liked watching TV, and every gadget she’d come across to the yard, and prepared for a bonfire in the middle of snowy Pine Groves Estates.
“What are those?” Jerry asked, not bothering to mask his anxiety.
“These? They’re photographs of you and your boss…naked!” Jordana flung them one by one at Jerry. He struggled to catch each one while he stared at the proof Jordana needed to divorce his ass, and take him for everything he had while she was at it.
She was the type to let bygones be bygones, but she couldn’t help but feel the emptiness in her chest, in her life, the betrayal that her younger self had screamed in her mind.
“Jordie, I can explain. Babe…”
Her shoulders shook, and the prickles behind her eyes returned. The wind picked up, blowing snow onto her face. She shivered, but not from the chill. Normally, she would be complaining about the cold, but her anger kept her boiling on the inside.
“Merry Christmas, Jer-bear.” With a flick of a finger, she lit the match and threw it on the gasoline-soaked pile. She flinched but didn’t jump back from the fire.
“You bitch! I’m going to end you!”
Jordana stepped back from Jerry’s reach and watched in shocked silence as a man appeared out of nowhere, charging at her philandering husband. Before she could release her next exhale, Jerry was on the ground, his face twisting in pain while he struggled beneath Jordana’s unexpected savior.
December, this year…
Taylor rid himself of the gun in his holster, checked if the safety was on before placing it in a drawer along with the holster itself and his badge. With a plop on the couch—which lately had turned more into his bed—he stretched, limbs aching slightly from a full night’s work, his joints making popping noises. Just a few more grueling nights at work and he’d be off for the Holidays.
“I’m too old for this shit,” he mumbled to himself. His apartment grumbled to life, the heater kicking on as if it agreed with his statement.
Reaching forward, he grabbed the remote control from the grimy coffee table. When was the last time he cleaned? He couldn’t think of a reply. “Well, it’s too late to start now.” He looked around his one-bedroom flat and winced at the disastrous state of the place he called home. “I need to hire a cleaner.” And get a life, a girlfriend or maybe someone you can talk to instead of yourself, his subconscious mocked him. He shrugged the idea off and clicked on the TV.
A few minutes into a show pretending to be a comedy, but failed to crack a smile out of him, his stomach grumbled. Knowing full well he didn’t have food in the house, or anything not past its expiration date, he stood to his full height, scratching at his abs over a rumpled shirt. While he made his way to his bedroom, he slipped off his shirt, tossed it aside and grabbed a cotton tee out of his drawer.
Seconds later, back in his living room, he retrieved his wallet from the side table and donned his thick parka, heading back out into the wintry night with no clear direction.
The second he left the sandwich shop, his phone rang. “Hey, Min, what’s up?”
“Nothing. I haven’t heard from you; that’s all. Wanna make sure you’re eating, sleeping. How are you doing?”
Taylor stopped short and rubbed his face with his palm. What his sister wanted to ask was how was he faring after finding out about Sam and Lisa. His best friend and his girlfriend. Correction, his ex-best friend and his ex-girlfriend.
It had been three years since he’d found out about their betrayal. And only a little over a month since he’d received the salt to his wounds—their wedding invitation. The nerve of them, pretending what they’d done to him was forgivable. That it could be erased by fancy paper with fancy writing. He’d rather spend weeks filling out paperwork than attend the cursed event.
“I’m good. A little tired,” he replied, trapping his phone between his head and shoulder while he zipped up his coat.
“I heard you’ve been working a lot of nights.”
“Are you sleeping?”
Minnie huffed. “Know any words other than ‘yeah’?”
He stifled a laugh, his lips quirking on one side. “Yeah.”
Just then a shrill scream pierced the air. Alerted by it, he spotted the source—a woman struggling to get away from a man just a few feet away.
“Was that a scream?”
His instincts kicked in. “Yeah. Gotta go!” He didn’t bother hearing what else his sister had to say, slipping the phone back into his pocket as he ran to the woman’s aid.
“Help!” she yelled as she punched and kicked off her assailant who had a tight grip on a purse. “Mine! Let go!”
In two seconds flat, Taylor had the perpetrator on the ground with his face pressed on the cold sidewalk. Taylor pressed his full weight on his back, pinned both the man’s arms behind him with one hand while Taylor flashed him his badge. “Chicago PD, idiot.”
“Oh my God, thank you!” the woman said as she picked up her purse off the ground.
When Taylor looked up, his mind worked fast, and instant recognition clicked. “Jordana West?”
The redhead furrowed her brows at first and leaned down to take a closer look at him, pushing her thick hair away from her face. When she straightened, she smiled. Her position suddenly relaxed, a hand resting on the curve of one hip.
“Taylor Wagner, gee whiz. We have to stop meeting like this.”
In all her thirty-three years (twenty-nine, if anyone asked in public), Jordana West didn’t often find herself in need of rescuing, but for the second time in almost a full year, Taylor came out of nowhere and became her knight in shining armor. She recounted the ordeal to an officer in blue after Taylor had called it in.
“I need a drink,” she blurted out once the patrol car left with the jerk who’d tried to steal her bag in the back seat.
“Yes. It’s been one hell of a night.” It’s been a hell of a year, Jordana wanted to say, but she kept her lips pressed.
Taylor hitched a thumb over his shoulder. “There’s a pub around the corner.”
“I know. I work beside it.”
“What? You live in the city now?”
Jordana shrugged. “For now.”
They walked in silence, heading to the pub. She shook off the last bit of the adrenaline’s effects on her, and her hand started to ache. Maybe she shouldn’t have punched the guy so hard but her whole life was in her purse, and she’d fight anyone for it.
She didn’t like the situation she’d found herself in a year ago. Last Christmas sucked the life out of her. After a horrible battle with her ex-husband in divorce court, she was left with almost nothing to her name. She should’ve known better. Jerry was as vindictive as they came. The house in Pine Groves sold quickly, and they’d split the profits, which she then used to start a life in Chicago. It was all her lawyer could squeeze from her cheating ex. After a few months of soul searching, she’d decided to go back to school, paying for her fees with whatever savings she’d managed to stuff away during her marriage.
Taylor held the pub door open for her, and lively Irish music greeted them as they walked in. He pointed at a few empty bar stools.
“Hey, Tay, the usual?” a pretty blonde asked from behind the bar, leaning forward and showing off her cleavage, presented nicely by a great push-up bra, with its lace edges peeking out of her V-neck shirt.
Much to Jordana’s surprise, Taylor kept his eyes on the bartender’s face. “Make it two, Brit.” He turned to her. “You drink beer, right?”
“Yes, of course.” She didn’t. With the way this year was going, maybe she should. Jordana unzipped her coat and dumped it to the empty stool, and slipped her bum on the stool closest to Taylor. She shook her hand, the ache intensifying. “That guy’s face was really hard.”
Much to her surprise, Taylor took her hand and inspected it under the dim lighting of the bar. She ignored the warmth of his palms and kept silent.
“Can we get some ice?” Taylor asked when the bartender returned with their beers.
“Sure thing, hon.” Brit, the bartender, smiled at Taylor and raised an eyebrow at Jordana. “Fell on the ice?”
“Fell on a guy’s face,” she replied without missing a beat, which earned her a good laugh from the other woman.
“You work next door,” Taylor said while Brit dumped a scoop of ice on a tea towel and handed it to her.
“Yes,” she replied although he didn’t pose it as a question. She dabbed the ice pack on the back of her right hand.
“Dry cleaners or Starbucks?”
Jordana laughed then stopped, knowing full well what Taylor had said wasn’t at all funny to anyone but her. Well, it was funny now. It hadn’t been funny when she struggled to find a job, when she had no work experience other than being a housewife. Which she’d thought ridiculous since being Jerry’s wife was a full-time job with limited benefits.
“Both, in fact.” Jordana clinked her bottle with Taylor’s before taking a pull of the chilled beverage. Beer didn’t taste too bad. “Tuesdays and Thursdays I work at the dry cleaners. And on the weekends I’m a barista. I go to school at the Art Institute,” she continued.
“Pathetic, I know.” Her shoulders slumped forward and she grabbed her drink with both hands like it was a lifeline.
“No, not at all. That’s commendable.” She looked at him, curious to see if she could find the truth in his eyes. He pressed a hand on his expansive chest. “Minnie and I were raised by a single mother. She worked three jobs while we went to school. She wouldn’t let me quit and work full time to help out.”
Jordana sighed. Why couldn’t all guys be like Taylor? Although if they had been, if Jerry had been, she wouldn’t have sworn off men, or had been divorced before she hit her prime, practically penniless and starting her life again.
“Minnie might have mentioned that.” She trained her attention back on her beer. “So you’re a cop.” He nodded. “That’s pretty bad ass.”
“It has its perks.” His smile was small, but proud.
“Like beating up jerks and cheaters.”
“Yeah, like that.”
“Well, cheers to you!” She raised her bottle.
“Don’t think about it. She’s gone through enough crap,” his sister had warned him last year when Jordana had to live with Minnie for a few days while the situation with her husband straightened out. “You’ve got enough notches on your bedpost to make your balls fall off.”
“That doesn’t make sense, Min.”
“Don’t think about it!” Minnie had yelled again, and he’d raised his hands in surrender.
Taylor wondered if the same rules applied if it had been almost a year since he’d laid eyes on Jordana. There must be a statute of limitations on sisterly threats.
Or maybe he shouldn’t have had too much to drink.
Jordana talked, and talked, and talked some more. By the end of the night, all he could stare at were her lips. Pink, full, seductive. He wanted to kiss her, if only to get her to stop talking, he convinced himself, knowing it was only a half truth. But Minnie would knee him in the junk if she found out he made a pass at her former neighbor.
Jordana had baggage. Sure, so did he, but he’d kept that under lock and key. He had managed to get over his hurt from Lisa’s betrayal by sleeping with as many women as he possibly could.
“What are your plans for Christmas?” It had taken a few seconds before he dragged his gaze from her lips up to her eyes, bright blue like the sky had been when he’d caught Sam fucking Lisa on their bed.
“My girlfriend is marrying my best friend on Christmas Eve,” he blurted out.
Confused as to why he felt the need to say it to a virtual stranger, he drank the rest of his beer and signaled Brit to bring him another.
“I don’t get it,” Jordana said, clasping her hands in front of her, her head tilted to one side.
Taylor pushed both sleeves up his forearms. Why did it get so hot all of a sudden? “My ex, Lisa, is getting married to my ex-best friend.”
Jordana shook her head. “No, I got that part. What I don’t understand is who gets married on Christmas Eve?”
He spread a hand in front of him as he waited for a response to Jordana’s question to form in his mind, and was grateful when Brit placed another full bottle in front of him.
“That’s a bit selfish.”
“Is it?” Taylor rubbed a hand over his face.
“I think so. Christmas is for family and stuff.”
“Well, Lisa loves to be the center of attention.”
For months after they’d broken up, he had convinced himself that he’d dodged the bullet with Lisa. She’d been hinting about marriage and kids for a while. Clearly, she’d have those with anybody who came along, not just Taylor. What he hadn’t bothered to tell anyone, other than his sister, was that he’d started to warm up to the idea of marriage and starting a family. Point in fact, he’d left work early one day and stopped by the jewelry store to pick up an engagement ring, and had planned to propose to her with a home-cooked meal. When he came home, he was the one who’d received a surprise.
“You gonna crash the wedding?” Jordana’s question pulled him back to the present.
He chuckled. “I don’t have to crash it. I got the invitation in the trash at home.”
“No!” She pushed him on the shoulder, causing him to stumble a little.
He righted himself. “Not kidding.”
Jordana crossed her arms over her chest. He looked around the pub to keep from staring at her breasts. “You should go.” He shook his head. She placed a hand on his thigh, and it got him to pay attention. “Don’t say no yet. Go. But make sure you go with someone…to make her jealous. Someone young and sexy.”
“Someone like you.”
“Not me, silly. Maybe…” Jordana tapped a finger on her chin as she scanned the bar. Her eyes brightened. “Brit.” She waggled her eyebrows.
“Why not? She’s a hot little thing. And she’s into you.”
He knew that. The hot blonde had tried to seduce him enough times. If they were in another situation, he would have indulged between her long legs, but he wanted to keep going to this pub. Sleeping with Brit, the pub owner’s daughter would complicate that. Since Lisa, he’d stayed clear of complications.
He turned back to Jordana, who picked up a bottle of water from the bar. When did she switch to water? Had he been the only one drinking all this time? If he had paid attention to more than her sultry lips, he would have noted it. Some detective you are, his subconscious mocked.
Taylor scratched the underside of his jaw. “Why not you?”
“No. Pass.” He waited for more to come from her. She averted her gaze and continued to play with the water bottle’s label. She was uncomfortable.
“What are you doing for Christmas?”
“Nothing. Studying. Working.”
“You’re not going to see your family?”
Jordana laughed, clapping her hands together once.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing, really. It’s more sad than funny I just don’t know how to react to it…I can’t go home. Not for a while. I fought against my family’s wishes and moved out here to be with Jerry. They never liked him. Never even wanted to meet him,” she’d confessed. “Going home divorced, with nothing to my name would be too humiliating.”
She had pride. So did he.
It could be the alcohol. It could be revenge knocking at his heart’s door. Jordana said it herself—Why not go with someone to the wedding? Someone to make Lisa believe she’d made the ultimate mistake. That he’d moved on. That each and every time he’d slept with someone, it hadn’t been her face he’d seen.
“I’ll be your husband.” He’d definitely had too much to drink.
Jordana spat the water she’d just drank all over the bar. She dabbed at her jaw with her sleeve. “What?”
“You said I need to make Lisa jealous. I think you’re perfect for it. Her wedding’s in Nevada.” Earlier, Jordana had mentioned she grew up in California. He assumed her family was still there. “She hates redheads. Her best friend in grade school was a redhead, and they became worst enemies in middle school.” Convinced his plan was solid, he went on, taking her hands in his. “You can be my date to the wedding, and I’ll be your husband. Mr. West.”
With the look she offered, he knew she wasn’t buying it. Her lips pursed. There was a defined line between her brows. She squinted at him. “You’re drunk.”
“Probably.” Definitely. “But you can’t deny it’s a good idea. We’ll get a nice vacation out of it. No snow.”
“I’m right. And I’ll pay for everything.” Taylor let go of her hands and skated his palms over her thighs and around her hips, bringing her closer to him. “Jordana West, will you please let me be your pretend husband for Christmas?”
She stared at the luggage sitting on the bed. Empty. Again. Her clothes for California were stacked, folded neatly around it. She’d packed, unpacked far too many times.
Tapping the plane tickets on her palm, Jordana paced the floor while waiting for her best friend to pick up the phone. Finally, her best friend, Lilith, answered, her voice hoarse. After all, it was two in the morning in San Diego.
“Am I making a big mistake?” Jordana asked, but she didn’t give Lil a chance to answer. “He texted me saying everything’s going to be okay. He sent the RSVP. He checked the fish dish for me, and the steak for him. I can’t back out now. He’ll be humiliated. Again! I can’t do that to him. I have to go…but I can’t help but feel this is the worst idea ever.”
Lilith cleared her throat. “Because it is,” she said with so much conviction it stopped Jordana from pacing.
They’d talked about the plan in great lengths the previous night, and Lilith tried to convince her it was a horrible idea. That Jordana should come home as she was and not carry on with the most bizarre plan she’d ever heard of—pretending Taylor, a guy she’d met a few times, was her husband.
What could Jordana do? Her parents had been married forever. Her three sisters and her brother married their high school sweethearts and went on to have battalions of kids. No one in her family ever mentioned the ‘D’ word. Except for their Uncle Jordan, her mother’s youngest brother, and Jordana’s namesake. He’d been divorced four times, had one kid with each wife, none of whom he ever saw, and last she checked, he was back living with Nan and Pop, Jordana’s grandparents.
She’d turned her back on her family years ago because she was in love with Jerry. He was her world. They hated him for taking her away from her family. Year after year, Jordana had asked Jerry if they could visit San Diego, to show her family they were in fact very much in love and happily married. But Jerry had excuse after excuse. And for seven years, since packing all her belongings to join Jerry in Illinois, she hadn’t seen her family. She’d communicated with them, thanks to Facebook, sent them cards and presents. Jordana had wanted to send photos, but Jerry often said he didn’t look good in any of them and had made her promise never to send any out. She was a good wife. Obedient. Loyal. Had the patience of a saint. She’d hoped one day, Jerry would change his mind and soon, as a reward, she’d find herself pregnant.
Around year four, Jordana’s mom had stopped asking her if she was planning to have children. It was the same year Jerry had started working for the Bitch. It was around the time Jerry had told her he’d never wanted kids. Maybe her mother had known all this time that her marriage was in shambles.
“I’ll feel bad if I don’t go.” Jordana sat on a pile of jeans on her bed.
“Just get here. If you want to go to the wedding with him, fine, do it…but you can’t bring him home and pretend he’s Jerry.” Lilith had met her ex-husband and not until Jordana got divorced, had Lilith mentioned how much she disliked the man. “Jerry’s a dickwad. Is Taylor going to act like him too?”
“No. I don’t think so.” Jordana wasn’t too sure. She barely knew Taylor. She didn’t even know what the story was behind Taylor’s ex-girlfriend and best friend, though she had an idea. “I promised I would go to the wedding. I have to go. And I’ll tell him after the wedding he can’t come with me.” Jordana stood and nodded her head. “You’re right, Lil. It’s not a good idea to bring him to Mom and Dad’s. I’ll see you soon, okay?”
“Go back to bed. I have to pack.”
“Okay…and good luck at the wedding!”
I am a class A moron.
Taylor repeated the words in his head while he stuffed shirts and socks in his bag. He hadn’t told anyone of his plans. They would all tell him the same thing. The hardest part was coming up with a believable lie to Minnie why he wouldn’t be able to make it to Christmas dinner at her house.
“Something came up. I have to attend a conference on Psychological Profiling in San Diego,” he’d told her the morning after spending an entire night with Jordana.
They hadn’t slept together. They’d done something worse instead. In his drunken stupor, he’d bought them Business Class tickets to Reno for Lisa’s wedding and to San Diego the following day, so they could make it to Jordana’s Family Christmas Dinner. Where he would have to act like her ex-husband. Where he would have to answer to the name Jerry for at least three days.
“Hey, I’m Jerry, the douchebag who cheated on your daughter,” he said aloud as he dumped two pairs of jeans in his bag. “And left her with nothing even though she was married to me for six damn years.” Jordana had said it far too many times, and it was all Taylor could think of.
After the pub, they’d stumbled to his apartment, and headed straight to his bedroom. He didn’t even try to kiss her. All he had been able to think of was how Lisa would react to him bringing a gorgeous woman like Jordana to her wedding. And not just any woman, but his fiancée. After booking the flights, Taylor had rummaged through his bedside table for the ring meant to adorn Lisa’s finger. Jordana was sound asleep on his bed, wearing her coat and boots, and Taylor had slipped the ring on her finger before he passed out on the edge of the bed. By the time his alarm went off, Jordana was gone.
They didn’t talk for a couple of days until she showed up at his work. “I think this belongs to you,” she said, handing him the solitaire diamond ring. The look on her face was heartbreaking. Did she have to do the same thing to her wedding band? Taylor wondered.
He’d invited her to dinner…as friends. “It’s good to have friends in this city,” he argued her when she declined. And knowing she would say no again, he added, “You’ll never know when you need someone to tackle cheaters and jerks again.” She smiled that sweet, innocent smile of hers, and agreed to a casual dinner.
He brought her to his favorite pizza joint, where they shared two large greasy pizzas, a pitcher of beer and more stories. Despite trying hard to avoid talking about Jerry, all conversations went straight to him. By the time they’d polished off their last slice, he had her rethinking about their plan.
It could have been the memory of how much in pain his mother had been in when his father left. Or the several heartbreaks Minnie had experienced before meeting Jill. Taylor hadn’t been able to do anything when those happened. He’d been too young when his father beat his mother up for the last time and skipped town right after. And Taylor would never hit a girl, even though they’d caused his sister heartache.
He could do something for Jordana. She was trying to be strong, but every now and then, she’d be quiet, her lips pressed together and turned down at the corners.
The next day, he sent his response to Lisa’s invitation—yes, plus one guest.
His phone trilled on the bedside table. The Uber he’d ordered arrived. In less than five hours, he would be in Reno with his fake fiancée, who’d be wearing the ring he’d meant to give to his ex-girlfriend while they attended her wedding to his ex-best friend. He zipped his bag closed, grabbed his garment bag and before stepping out, all he could do was laugh at how his life got complicated all of a sudden.
What could happen in the seventy-two hours he pretended to be happily committed to a woman he’d only met under unusual circumstances? Taylor couldn’t venture a guess.
“You have three sisters and one brother. Alice has five kids, Sarah has four—two sets of twins, Anna has three and fourth in the bun, and your brother, John has three.”
Jordana swung her bag over her shoulder. “No, Alice and Anna both have sets of twins. Anna has four kids, and Sarah’s the one expecting her fifth.”
“Jesus. Does your family know anything about contraception?”
“Hey, watch it!” She pointed a finger at him, smirked then added proudly, “I’m from a big family, and we all wanted tons of kids. It’s a lot of fun.”
“We?” Taylor waved his hand to let her disembark the plane first. His tone was clipped, but the stress of seeing Lisa again after three years had weighed down on him, and Jordana saw it right away in his eyes and heard it in his voice. He’d briefed her on how Lisa and he’d come to break up after dating for two and a half years between the alcoholic beverages they’d both ordered during the flight.
“Yes, we. Me included.”
“Why didn’t you…why don’t we have any?” Jordana adored how he referred to them as one unit.
Jordana thanked the flight attendants before stepping out of the plane. “We wanted to, but you had to focus on your career before we started on kids.”
“But I’m doing what I want to now?”
“And you’re still not pregnant?”
“Nope,” she said quickly, not wanting to imply how much it hurt her not to have a child now. At this rate, she’d figured, she would have to go through the dating scene again to meet a decent guy. She’d like to be married for at least two years before she could have any kids of her own. With how her life was going, she’d be right in her late thirties or forties before that even happened, and she understood how risky it could be.
“Man, I’m an asshole.” Taylor huffed. He carried his bag, his garment bag and rolled her luggage behind him.
Jordana smiled. “You? Ever wanted kids with Lisa?”
He hesitated. “Honestly, yeah. Maybe one or two. Boy and girl.” He tilted his head and offered her a charming smile, meant to say it was between him and her. “Minnie’s the one who wanted a lot of kids. She and Jill are hoping their adoption will go through next year. They tried artificial insemination a couple of times, but nothing took.”
“Minnie would make a great mother.” She appreciated how welcoming and warm Minnie had been when she had to stay with her and Jill. Minnie had treated her like family, always attending to her needs even before Jordana thought of it. She had been invited to Minnie’s wedding in the summer, but she wasn’t in the right mind to attend any public events, particularly one that would show her how much of a farce her life had been.
“Yes, she would. She took care of me a lot when we were younger while our mom worked. C’mon—” He extended his free hand. “Let’s go find our car.”
They waded through the thick crowd to get to the exit. She had suspected it would be chaotic at an airport this time of the year. Thankfully, Taylor had the mind to reserve a ride to their hotel.
Taylor hadn’t been too open about himself on the plane after the chat about Lisa, despite her urging. Since she was wearing his engagement ring, Jordana figured they could at least get down to the basics. He promised to give her the run down when they reach the hotel.
She was looking forward to getting to know her pretend husband.
When she opened the door, Jordana thanked the Heavens Taylor had also thought of sleeping arrangements. They were staying in a one-bedroom suite. It couldn’t have been cheap. But Jordana didn’t have the right amount in her bank account to offer Taylor some sort of reimbursement. She would have to make it up to him in San Diego. Lilith worked as a manager for one of the mid-size hotels and had managed to give her the family discount for three nights.
“You take the bed. I’ll sleep on the couch,” Taylor said, stepping into the large room. Right behind him, a hotel attendant rolled her luggage in. “Thanks a lot.” Taylor shook hands with the man.
“Thank you, sir. Please enjoy your stay.” The attendant didn’t linger.
As soon as the door closed behind him, Jordana plopped down on the sofa. “I need a nap.” Their flight had left O’Hare too early even for coffee.
“Go and nap, I’ll check out the gym, maybe get a workout in before I crash.”
“Okay.” After slipping off her shoes, she stretched her legs on the sofa. She watched Taylor walk into the bedroom with her luggage and his bag. Jordana tried to remember when was the last time she’d gone on a real vacation. And enjoyed it. Sure, Jerry had brought her to different locales when he had attended conferences. But too often, she’d spent time alone in hotel rooms, waiting for her husband to become available. Taylor was right. This could be a nice, well-deserved vacation after all.
When Taylor returned to the living room, he had removed his travel clothes and replaced it with a pair of low-hung sweatpants. “The tub’s huge. You should take a bubble bath,” he said while he slipped on a fresh t-shirt.
Jordana’s throat became parched, and she covered up a gasp with a cough.
She would never say it out loud, but from the first time they’d met, she thought Taylor was hot. And after seeing his abs…wow. She thought muscles like those only appeared in magazines, airbrushed to perfection.
“Hey! You okay?”
She snapped out of wherever her mind went to. “Hmmm…yeah. Perfect. Just perfect.” Rearranging the pillow under her head, she turned away from Taylor, and waved a hand. “Have fun at the gym!”
“I’ll be back in an hour,” she heard before the door clicked shut.
“This is a bad idea,” Jordana huffed into the pillow.
Words formed in his mind faster than Usain Bolt on enhancement-performing drugs, only to get stuck on the tip of his tongue. The only thing Taylor could manage was a flat smile, and the careful discipline he’d worked on for years not to punch Sam Haley, his former best friend, right then and there.
“Lisa and I are thrilled you’re able to make it,” Sam kept on, his hand still stretched out between them.
An unwelcomed vision clicked in Taylor’s mind. Lisa on top of Sam, her silken hair bouncing over her shoulders and down her back. Sam’s hands gripping Lisa’s hips, her waist, her ass. On loop. Clear as the chlorinated water of the hotel’s pool, like it played out in real time right in front of him as it had three years ago.
It was a bad idea to come. A muscle on his temple twitched. His fists tightened at his sides. Why did he think he could show up here without wanting to pound the life out of the groom-to-be? A left hook would knock his front teeth out and give him a fat lip. Should make a nice wedding photo.
“There you are!” a sweet, soothing voice rang through his angered haze. Jordana’s lithe hand snaked up his arm and hooked around his elbow. For reasons only known to the universe, Taylor began to relax his composure. “Hello, I’m Jordana.” He breathed slowly, watching her extend a hand and shake Sam’s.
Taylor cleared his throat and loosened his fists. “Ah yeah…Jordana, this is Sam. He’s the groom.” The word felt thick in his throat. “Sam, this is Jordana West—” he hung his head down, and caught Jordana’s gaze. “—my fiancée.”
“Fiancée…” Sam momentarily appeared shocked, but he smoothened his face into a broad smile. “Wow. Congratulations! I didn’t know. I…” He nodded, his lips tight. “Congratulations. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Oh, it’s nice to meet you too. I hope you don’t mind if I steal this amazing guy for a bit. He’s been working so much, and he needs some relaxing…activities,” Jordana said with a smile. “If you know what I mean.”
A laugh bubbled in Taylor’s chest as he stared at Jordana, but he kept it locked in. He hooked an arm around her, held her close, and kissed her forehead. Thankfully, she played into the charade and circled her arms around his waist. They made it work. Sam ate it all up, if his constant nodding, and his even wider grin were anything to go by.
“Of course. Of course,” Sam said, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “Hey, if you guys are free tonight, you should come to the rehearsal dinner. It’s at a restaurant a few blocks away. I’m sure Lisa would love to see you before the wedding, Tay, and you too…she’d love to meet you…” He splayed a hand in front of him and drew his brows together.
“Jordana,” she supplied. “What do you think, babe?” She rubbed a flat hand over Taylor’s shirt, along his sternum, and down his abs.
Taylor looked down at her. There was a glint of mischief in her eyes as she gazed up at him. “I think we’ll skip it for now. Thanks.” Slowly, he turned back to Sam. “We’ll see you at the wedding tomorrow. Give Lisa my regards.” And don’t forget to mention this sweet, sassy redhead in my arms.
“Well if you change your mind, I’m in Room 705. Just give me a call, and we’ll add a couple of seats.”
“We won’t. We’re going to be busy having sex,” Jordana said and the laughter Taylor held in burst out.
Sam’s jaw dropped.
“See you later, Sam.” Taylor slapped a hand on his former friend’s shoulder before turning away, with Jordana snuggled by his side.
He held her close until the elevator doors closed. “You are wild, woman!” Taylor told Jordana as he slipped away from her. “Did you see his face?” His grin was wide, and his shoulders relaxed, such a contrast from when she first saw him at the gym.
She had given up hope of napping after imagining him naked on top of her. Although she’d only seen him shirtless, her mind filled in the rest. Jordana tried calling Lilith but after calling her three times to no avail, she’d given up and went straight to the showers.
The cool shower did nothing to calm her hormones down. Figuring she had a one-way ticket to hell for faking her husband to her family, she might as well have fun while she was at it. Off to the gym she went, not to exercise but to spy on Taylor. Once she spotted him all tightened and looking ready to explode, she knew what she had to do. Rescue the poor guy for once.
A few couples and a family with little kids joined them in the elevator, and Jordana had no choice but to step closer to Taylor, almost leaning against his hard body. He was a little sweaty from his workout but he didn’t smell horrible. The scent of citrus and something else she couldn’t put a finger on lingered on his skin. She stole glances whenever she could, to gauge his mood. As soon as they were alone, she let the curious cat out of the bag.
“When did you find out about them?” Jordana didn’t look at him right away. When she felt him stiffen, she gazed at him from under her lashes. His lips parted, but no words came. “You don’t have to give me the details. Really…you don’t have to answer my question… I just…” She lowered her head, suddenly angry at herself for intruding.
The elevator stopped with a jolt and the doors opened. Taylor waved his hand for her to step off the car, and he followed after. They walked silently to their room, with heavy tension filling the gap between them.
When Jordana slipped her key card into the slot, Taylor spoke. “It was the day I bought the ring.”
She looked down at her hand. “Oh.” Not knowing what else to say, she pushed open the door, stepped into the suite and headed straight to the mini-bar. After picking up a mini-bottle of whiskey, she poured the contents into two tumblers and handed one to Taylor.
They stood there, facing each other, sipping their drinks.
“I’m sorry,” the words slipped out of her mouth.
Jordana avoided his eyes and gave him a half shrug. “For letting you go through this. For making you pretend to be someone you’re not. For…being here.” She breathed heavily as she tilted her head up to him. “For being a sucky friend.”
Taylor met her gaze and kept the intensity trained on her, even as he drank the rest of his whiskey. When he brought his glass down, he licked his lips and pressed a thumb on Jordana’s chin. “Pretend finacée.” And then he smiled.
Jordana scoffed, and poked Taylor’s chest with two fingers, pushing him away. It was getting too dangerous having him this close. “Then let me make it up to you.”
“Oh yeah?” The two simple words were loaded with innuendo.
“Yes. I did some research and found a few things we can do for fun, and a couple of great restaurants we can try. So…why don’t you—” She pressed a hand on his expansive chest. “—take a shower because you smell. And I’ll make reservations?”
Her hand lifted when he took a deep inhale and with his exhale, Taylor clasped her hand in his and placed a kiss on the crook of her thumb and finger. “If you insist.”
They spent three hours walking along the Truckee River, stopping first for artisanal pizza and a couple of beers, followed by a bit of shopping and Jordana pausing to take photos of public art sculptures that interested her—and there were a lot of those. Taylor waited patiently each time, carrying her shopping bags and her bright pink purse. He liked her company, even when she talked nonstop after the double chocolate cupcake and double espresso she had for dessert. She was beautiful, intelligent and interesting. And sexy. Extremely sexy. Maybe a little too sexy to be his fake fiancée.
After half an hour of watching families skate on the Reno River, Jordana became quiet and asked if they could return to the hotel and rest before they head out again for dinner.
“I miss my family,” she said under her breath as soon as they got into a cab headed back to the hotel.
“You’ll see them soon.”
“I know.” Sinking in the backseat, she dropped her head on his shoulder. “Thanks to you. You have no idea how much I appreciate it.”
Taylor stayed silent. Despite the protestations in his head, he felt it was the right thing to do.
No amount of showering would ever be enough to wash off his dirty desires for the spritely redheaded vixen. Taylor cupped his hands under the cold spray and splashed his face with water. He needed better restraint. He couldn’t imagine how a man like Jerry could resist Jordana’s appeal.
She’d crashed on the bed and immediately fell into a deep slumber. When Taylor walked out of the shower, she was still there, curled on one side, with her hair fanned on the white pillows, and her hands tucked under one cheek. Peaceful. Beautiful. Enticing. How would she react if he got into bed with her?
“Not me,” she’d said that night at the pub back home.
Why not you? he wondered again. Why not them?
She was heartbroken, picking the little pieces of herself up after a loveless marriage. Did she think she deserved less? He would never agree to that. But could he give her more?
Lisa had wanted more. He had been willing to commit then. After what she’d done to him, he had a hard time trusting his own heart. Jordana’s heartbreak hadn’t completely healed, yet. He wasn’t there to fix it, but he could try.
Taylor slipped into his pants and shirt, and without rousing Jordana, he slid into bed behind her, held her in his arms, and tucked his nose in her hair.
He looked good enough to eat in his navy blue suit and tie. Much better looking than the groom, and by far, to her eyes, the most debonair man at the wedding. Jordana couldn’t help but swoon over the man by her side. Lisa was an idiot to let Taylor go, Jordana thought, and the proof was right there, sizzling hot like the sun itself.
The ceremony was short, and they headed straight to the reception hall. After hanging out with some of Taylor’s old friends, she needed a break. There was only so much fakery she could muster in three hours. Jordana didn’t bother remembering anyone’s name. They were, after all, the people who’d chosen the wrong side. As far as she could tell, Taylor was right to break up his relationship with Lisa. He kept it cool the entire time, smiling and chatting with friends who’d betrayed him. She admired that, but she also wanted to scream the entire time. When she felt her jaw tensing from faux smiling, she had to excuse herself.
“Are you okay?” Taylor, the sweetheart that he was, asked, his eyes full of concern.
She patted his hand on her arm. “I’m fine. I need to put my feet up. Clearly, these shoes were the wrong ones to wear today.”
“Can I get you anything?”
God, he’s perfect. “No. You stay put, and I’ll head upstairs for a bit. Maybe change my shoes. You owe me a dance, remember?”
Taylor shook his head. “I promised no such thing.”
“Hey, we had a deal!”
He replied with a crooked smile and a wink. “I distinctly remember another deal.”
Jordana rolled her eyes and walked away, but her smile widened on her way to the elevators. Busy with thoughts of how she’d woken up to Taylor snuggling beside her in bed after a much-needed rest, and the best night she’d had in a long time—dining, trying her luck at the casinos and dying of laughter because Taylor was a born comedian when he was relaxed—she didn’t notice the woman in all her princess bride complete with a tiara glory.
“Oh, pardon me!” Jordana raised her hands when she collided with the bride, and backed away when Lisa hissed.
“Great, just great! Now my dress is ruined,” Lisa complained as she patted the red spots on the skirt of her dress. When she looked up, her left eye twitched, and she pursed her lips. “Oh, it’s you.”
I’m going to ignore that. “Yes, hi. We haven’t met. I’m Jordana…”
“I know who you are.” Lisa sneered. “What I don’t understand is what you’re doing here.”
Jordana’s jaw dropped. Checking her surroundings for anyone listening or witnessing an obvious Bridezilla in action, she straightened and said proudly, “I’m Taylor’s date.”
Lisa dragged her eyes from the bottom of Jordana’s dress up to her red curls and scoffed. “I don’t buy it. Taylor’s never been into redheads.”
“Well, he is now. A lot. Like all the time.” Jordana flicked her fingers in front of Lisa’s face. Before the bride could say anything else, she continued, “I guess he got sick of a real bitch who cheats on him with his best friend.”
Lisa gasped and her hand lifted. Jordana stood her ground. Sure, Lisa was gorgeous, with shiny, non-frizzy hair, legs up to her eyeballs and a face pretty enough to grace a fashion magazine cover, but she was a horrible human being. Somewhere behind Jordana, someone called Lisa, and the irate bride dropped her hand.
Jordana couldn’t get herself to relax. Not just yet. And not when Lisa, before turning to her friend, leaned down and told Jordana, “No one’s ever going to be good enough for Taylor. He knows it. You should know it too. He has a superhero complex. He’d always rescue strays.”
He couldn’t figure out what had soured Jordana’s mood. She had only been gone for ten minutes, enough to head up to their room, change her shoes like she’d said, and return to the party.
Was she as sick at the charade as he was? Apart from Jordana, he was surrounded with liars, fakers. They had all told him how much he was missed, how they wished they’d kept in contact, but no one had ever mentioned the reason why they’d stayed away. Taylor’s so-called friends had congratulated his engagement, but none had bothered to engage Jordana in a real conversation. Two of his friends from college kept calling her Juliana. And each time Jordana corrected them with a polite, sweet smile, his chest tightened.
He gave her a nudge. “You want another drink?” He raised his half-full glass as an offer.
Her smile was flat, and her eyes lacked the brilliance he’d gotten to admire. “No. I’m good.”
“Are you tired? You wanna go back to the room and rest?”
She sighed. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Okay, let’s go.” Putting his glass down on the table, he held his hand out to her, but she waved it away.
“You can stay. Have fun with your friends.” There was no doubt in Taylor’s mind the smile she offered him was for show…to make him believe there was nothing wrong.
“Jordana, wait.” He stood with her, placed her little pink purse and scarf on her seat, and tangled her fingers with his. With a loud exhale, he shook the tension off his shoulders and led her to the middle of the great hall.
“What are you doing?”
With a lift of a hand, he guided her to a full turn, and once she faced him again, with a surprised but delighted look on her face, he skated a hand around her waist to the small of her back. “I believe we had a deal.”
She bit the corner of her lip and peered at him through curled lashes. “Suddenly you’re honoring that?”
“I’m an honorable man,” he whispered against her cheek.
Jordana pressed her face on his shoulder. “That you are.” They swayed on the dance floor to the slow beat of a ballad.
“Though some of the thoughts I have of you are not.”
He held her closer still when she giggled. “Is that right?” Her smile brightened her eyes when she looked up.
He nodded. “Yup.” As the song’s tempo slowed, he brushed the hair from her face with barely a touch of his finger, and he stared right into her eyes as he pressed a thumb on her chin. Then he lowered his lips to meet hers.
A simple kiss…with a lot of meaning. A step from becoming friends to something more. He let his slightly parted mouth hover over hers a few seconds more, to inhale her sweetness, to admire her beauty. To allow himself to think of the possibilities.
“You’re still tired?” he asked when she opened her eyes.
“I don’t know what I am.”
“I think it’s time for us to go.”
They held onto each other as they made their way out of the hall. Sam, standing with a few of their old friends, waved him over. “Tay, come here for a sec and settle this bet.”
Not knowing how to reply, Taylor waved back.
Jordana patted him on the chest. “Why don’t you say your goodbyes and I’ll see you upstairs in a bit?”
“I guess. I won’t be long.” He pulled her to him and planted another heated kiss on her lips.
“Don’t make a lady wait.”
He watched Jordana swing her hips until someone pulled him aside.
Not long after, he realized Sam was completely inebriated and whatever was coming out of his mouth wouldn’t do the groom any good. Since they’d been roommates in college, Sam had always been a mean drunk. Taylor searched for the best man or any of the five groomsmen, but couldn’t spot any of them. All he was able to find was Lisa, who appeared quite intoxicated herself.
The party had wound down, and only half of the guests stayed. He walked over to Lisa on the dancefloor. “Sam’s done for the night,” he told her.
Lisa scrunched up her face and narrowed her eyes at her new husband, who was slouched on one of the chairs where Taylor had left him. “What an idiot.” She scoffed. Her features changed when she swung her arms around Taylor’s neck. “Stay with me. I’m the bride. You have to dance with the bride,” she slurred.
Taylor reached back to peel her grip off his neck. “No, Jordana’s waiting for me.”
Lisa pouted. He’d seen that look far too many times. It never bode well for him. “Just one dance.”
“I can’t, Lisa,” he said firmly and held her arms down at her sides.
“Fine, but can we talk? I have some things I need to say…things I should have said years ago.”
He had a distinct idea what she’d tell him. After spending time with Jordana and realizing how he could have a better relationship with a woman, Taylor was ready to close the chapter on Lisa. He was done. He’d been done with it all a long time ago, but it took the simplest, yet most memorable moments with Jordana to cement it in his head. Maybe Lisa needed her closure too. Taylor could give her this one last chance.
“Alright, talk.” He crossed his arms over his chest and cocked his head to one side.
“Not here. It’s too loud, and people are watching.”
“No one’s watching,” he argued, wondering how he’d ended up staying with Lisa even though she’d been one manipulative woman.
“Please.” Lisa clasped her hands together, and jutted out her bottom lip like a kid asking for a bigger Christmas present.
Exasperated with the immature antics, Taylor massaged his temple, nodded once and followed Lisa out.
She led him down the long hallway, not too far from the reception hall and near the elevators, until she found a quiet spot. There was a prickle on the back of his head. Try as he might, he kept his distance from Lisa, but she advanced on him until his back was flat on the wall.
“What is this?” Taylor spat. She fiddled with the lapels of his suit and the tie hanging loosely around his neck. “Lisa, stop,” he ordered and pushed her hands away from his chest.
“I’m sorry about what happened,” Lisa blurted out.
“It’s fine. Everything’s forgiven. I’ve moved on.” Looking down at the floor, he let go of her wrists and stuffed his hands in his pockets.
“But I haven’t.”
Taylor’s head snapped up. “Just stop. This is bullshit.” He raised his hands and sidestepped around her poufy dress.
“No, please…hear me out. I should never have left you…”
His head felt like it was in a vice grip as he whirled around to face Lisa. “You mean you shouldn’t have cheated on me. You didn’t leave me, I kicked you out because you fucked my best friend.”
“You don’t understand…”
Taylor’s hands flew in the air. “I don’t care. You’re married now. We’re done. We’re not even friends.”
“But I still love you. I married him because I felt stuck.”
“Not my problem.” As Taylor turned away, Lisa pulled his hand back, and before he could do anything, she kissed him.
Years of memories, of their time together, of the happy and the sad moments, rolled in Taylor’s mind like a Hallmark movie. She hurt him. She was his best friend. She was his lover. She had been everything to him. And he had been willing to give his heart, his dedication to her. She threw it all away by sleeping with Sam. That memory stayed strong and true in his thoughts. He could never erase that.
Slowly, he pulled away from Lisa, stared at her and felt sorry for the woman he’d once loved. Before he could say a word, a movement by a closing elevator door caught his eye.
If she didn’t witness it with her own eyes, she wouldn’t have believed it. But there they were, clear as day. Taylor and Lisa locked in an embrace, kissing, gazing at each other as real lovers did…had done so for years.
Jordana stumbled back when Taylor saw her. Instantly, he let go of Lisa, and stepped toward her. “Jordana, this isn’t…”
“I forgot my purse and my scarf.” She pointed at the doors of the great hall.
Her breath held, she refused to look at either of them and kept walking. “I’ll be out of your way.”
“Wait, wait, wait…” Taylor matched her pace. He didn’t try to touch her, which was good, since she wanted to deck him. All she could think of was how she’d found herself in the same situation as she had a year ago. “Jordana, let me explain.”
God, she hated that word. Explain. Like it would instantly erase all the hurt and pain she suffered through. She stopped before she reached the hall, crossed her arms and faced a surprised Taylor. “Go ahead. Explain,” she said around the thick lump in her throat.
“It was…she just…”
Pathetic. It was all she could think of her self. She couldn’t believe she’d fallen for it all over again. The joke was on her, always on her. The entire universe had it out for her for what, she didn’t know. Maybe it was payback for lying to her family all those years, for pretending she’d been happy, and she’d felt loved. Well, Jordana finally understood. Karma was a bitch who had been after her all these years.
“You really don’t have to say anything, Taylor. We’re not anything. We’re just pretending, right?” She turned her head and squinted at Lisa who’d followed after them. “We’re not together, you know. I was just a prop.” She chuckled drily. “I came with him because he paid for the flights and I was too broke to fly back home to my parents. So you have nothing to worry about.” Again, she faced Taylor and uncrossed her arms. She flattened her palms on his chest. She wanted to hit him right where his heart beat madly. But she calmed her features and in a steady voice, she said, “Don’t worry about tomorrow. You’re off the hook.”
“What? No! I’m not off anything,” he began, “What you saw was nothing. She kissed me, but I didn’t kiss her back.”
She couldn’t believe he was even talking about it. “Whatever, man.”
As Taylor opened his mouth to undoubtedly continue his paltry explanation, his phone vibrated in his suit jacket. He cursed under his breath and ignored the phone. He kept talking, but Jordana was done listening. White noise hummed in her ears. Even though she was looking at Taylor, she didn’t see him. He was just another guy who’d crushed her heart. The sad part was he probably didn’t even know it. And she would never tell him.
Again and again, his phone buzzed until he couldn’t ignore it any longer. Jordana closed her eyes and breathed, biting the inside of her mouth to keep the tears from falling. She could hear Minnie’s voice on the other line, loud and angry. While Taylor had his hands full with his sister on the phone, she slipped away from him.
Without any other choice but wait until the morning, Jordana stayed that night, but locked herself in the bedroom. She ignored Taylor’s plea. He knocked on the door again and again and again. When it was evident she had no plans of opening it, he explained everything through the wooden bedroom door.
She didn’t pay him attention at first, gathering her belongings and stuffing them in her luggage. Then the words began making sense, and she stopped packing. She walked to the door and pressed her ear on the hard surface. Eyes closed, stomaching churning, heart aching, she closed her eyes, sat on the floor and listened to him letting everything out. What he thought of her.
“I adore your laugh, and your random chattering, even if nothing you say made sense. I never stopped you from talking because I love the sound of you voice,” Taylor confessed. “Your smile…God, your smile…I wish I can see it all day, every day for the rest of my life. You’ve brought me sunshine. You’ve turned my drab life into something beautiful whenever you’re around.”
Taylor admitted how beautiful he thought she was right from the moment he watched her outside his sister’s window. “I thought you were so brave and courageous to stand up to her husband, to know you’re worth more, to leave him even though you knew you had to start all over again.”
Jordana twisted around, and seeing Taylor’s shadow under the crack of the door, she leaned her forehead on it, and closed her eyes, imagining him doing the same. Opening the door would be easy. But she’d been through this before. She’d been trampled on by the same man who had showered her with compliments. Who, at the end of it all, had called her hateful names, and who hadn’t looked regretful of all his wrong-doings despite all her sacrifices, love and devotion. After her divorce, she’d promised herself she would never let a man have that kind of hold on her. Suffering heartbreak after Jerry left a deep scar in her heart. If she let Taylor in, and he turned back on his words, his promises, she wasn’t sure if her heart could survive it.
For hours he talked and talked until his voice became hoarse. Her eyelids, soaked in tears, grew heavier and the night sky rolled into dusk.
“You’re a fool,” Minnie repeated, knowing well her brother wasn’t giving her all his attention.
Taylor titled his head up and dropped his hands between his knees. He felt defeated. “Not now, Min.”
“Here. I made you special coffee.” She handed him a mug. Steam billowed above the piping hot coffee.
Taylor took it and let the heat of the mug prickle his fingers. He’d been numb since flying back from Reno, alone. And he was willing to take any punishment coming at him. He took a sip of the caramel –colored drink and coughed when he realized it wasn’t just coffee in the mug.
“What the hell is this?” He screwed his lips up as he stared at his sister.
“Coffee with a good dose of bourbon.” She tapped him on the back. “Drink up and let me tell you how much of a stupid idiot you are.”
He huffed. “Way to kick me when I’m down.”
“Shut it. You did it to yourself.”
She wasn’t wrong.
Taylor had a feeling Lisa was up to no good. He should have listened to his instincts, which had never failed him at work. But when it came to women, he couldn’t tell which was left or right. As soon as Minnie found out that he’d attended Lisa’s wedding with Jordana—thanks to the hundreds of photos posted on Facebook—she’d called him and questioned his sanity.
Jordana had stayed that night but she’d locked herself in the bedroom. Gathering up all his courage, or whatever was left after his sister had chewed him out on the phone, he knocked on the door again, and again and again. When it was clear she had no plans of opening it, he explained everything, without knowing if she could hear him or not.
He’d sat on the floor and let everything out. What he thought of her. How much he adored her laugh, and her random chattering. How he never wanted to stop her from talking because he loved the sound of her voice. How he loved her smile, and wished he could see it all day, everyday for the rest of his life.
Taylor admitted how beautiful he thought she was right from the moment he watched her outside his sister’s window. That he admired her bravery and courage to stand up to her husband, leave him and start all over again. For hours he talked and talked until his voice became hoarse, his eyelids grew heavier and the night sky rolled into dusk.
When he woke up on the carpeted floor of the hotel suite with the bedroom door wide open and all of Jordana’s things gone, he knew he was too late. He’d done the damage and there was nothing he could do to patch it up.
“She posted pictures on Facebook this morning,” his sister’s voice brought him back to the present.
“Did she look happy?” he asked over the rim of the mug.
“I think so. She’s with her family. And God, there’s a ton of them. It’s the usual Christmas stuff.”
Taylor nodded. “That’s good. At least she’s with her family now.”
A few quiet moments passed until his sister sighed and without any warning, smacked him on the back of his head. Coffee spilled on his lap and he jumped.
“What was that for?”
“For being a stupid idiot.”
Taylor brushed his jeans with the back of his hand after placing the mug on the table. “I heard you the first million times. I get it. I know. I agree with you.”
“Yeah but you don’t even know why.” Minnie stood and swung her hips to one side as she held out an envelope. “Here. Merry Christmas.”
Taylor drew his eyebrows together and looked at his sister’s suspicious offering. “Christmas is over, and we agreed not to give each other presents.”
“Yeah—“ She shrugged. “—but I’m getting sick of seeing your pouty face in my house.”
“Fine. I’ll leave.” He raked his fingers through his hair. “I’ll get out of your way and take my poutiness elsewhere.”
“Just take this.” She shook the envelope at him.
Taylor pinched the corner with his thumb and finger, sliding it from Minnie’s hand, while keeping his eye on his sister. Minnie’s face gave nothing away. He opened the envelope and pulled out the content.
“Minnie, wow,” was all he could say.
“Tell Jordana I said Happy New Year.”
Jordana turned on her side and let the piles of pillows bury her on the bed. She stared at her phone and pressed a button.
I just called to say…Merry Christmas… She closed her eyes and listened intently, letting the message replay on her phone to the part where Taylor’s voice cracked. Only a little. But it was there when he said he missed her. There was no mistaking it.
I miss you.
Taylor had left a message on her phone on Christmas night, right before her big family dinner. She couldn’t get to her phone right away, not when she had a lot of making up for all that she’d missed with her family.
She’d flown home without him, her pretend husband. When her mother had opened the door of her childhood home, all Jordan could do was drop her bags and cry on her mother’s shoulder.
The whole family had witnessed her breakdown, and it had taken almost two days before her brother teased her about it. They’d saved her from blubbering about her sad life, and admitted that they’d known for a while that she had been unhappy. Her father was the one to tell her they all believed she would make it home eventually.
She was welcomed, with open arms, and soon after, her mother was pushing plates of food at her, saying she’d gotten too thin from all her worrying.
To say she was happy to be back with the people she loved was a complete understatement, but she couldn’t help but feel the gaping hole in her heart. A hole that couldn’t be filled with a single voicemail message. She wanted to be angry at Taylor but in reality, all she could think of were those sweet words he’d told her through the door of the hotel bedroom. Leaving him had been the right thing to do. She’d figure out her plans for the next few days, then when the time was right, she’d talk to him, give him back his ring…again…and tell him how she felt.
If it wasn’t too late…
Jordana flipped on her back, pushing the pillows off her, and slipping the ring out of her jeans pocket to once again admire the brilliant diamond. An understated beauty, like the man who had chosen it. When she noticed the house was too quiet, considering the entire clan was around and the younger kids just woke up from their naps, she sat up and titled her head.
“What’s going on?” The house had been noisy since she’d arrived and she’d gotten used to all of it. Quiet meant something wasn’t right. Curious, she jumped off the bed and slipped her phone and the ring back in her pocket.
When she opened the door, her heart jumped straight to her throat.
Taylor, and all his six-foot gorgeousness, widened his smile. “Hi.”
Jordana grasped the fabric of her shirt and somehow found her voice. “What are you doing here?”
“I think you still have my ring.”
Her jaw went slack. Of course. It had to be a few thousand dollars. She rolled her eyes as she fished the ring out of her pocket. “You didn’t have to fly all the way here to get it. I would have given it back to you, mailed it if you’d asked.” She grabbed his hand and dropped the ring on his palm.
“Well if I did that, then I wouldn’t be able to do this.” As soon as the last words were out of his mouth, he scooped her in his arms and pressed his lips on hers.
She didn’t want him to let go. She wanted the kiss to last forever. Jordana let her hands roam over his body, tight muscles, ridges, planes. All hard and warm. She got lost in his kiss and in Taylor…until someone cleared their throat.
Blinking away the spots behind her lids after the hottest kiss ever known to man, she looked over Taylor’s shoulder and found her entire family stacked on the stairs.
“Oh…right.” Jordana slid her hands off Taylor’s shoulders and gathered her bearings. “I should introduce you to my family.” Taylor smiled down at her and nodded. He swooped a thumb over her lips before turning to face the West family.
“Hey, everyone, this is Taylor Wagner.”
Taylor waved a hand. “Hello again.”
“He’s not my husband. And not my fiancé.” With a hand to his chest, Jordana gazed adoringly at him. “He’s just a guy who has a bad habit of rescuing me around Christmas.”
Want to learn more about Michelle Jo Quinn’s books? Turn the page!
THE BLISS SERIES (SWEET ROMANCE)
CONFESSIONS OF A WEDDING PLANNER
THE BACHELOR’S PERFECT PROPOSAL
CHASING THE RUNAWAY BRIDE
BLISS BOUND BOXED SET (BLISS BOOKS 1&2)
SANTA BéBé (Instafreebie free ebook)
NEVER A BRIDE (COMING 2017)
REVENGE OF A JILTED BRIDE (APRIL 2017)
To friends, Trinity, Liz and Amie, I’m grateful for all the guidance and encouragements.
To Charity, I’m lost without you.
To readers, thank you for all the support!
To my family, your love is always and forever appreciated.
Michelle is addicted to romance. She believes in happily ever afters and loves writing about couples who get there. From sexy rockstars to driven CEOs, her Alpha heroes tend to have Beta tendencies, charming their ways to the hearts of strong, independent heroines they meet.
When not writing, she props her feet up on her favorite lounger and binges on Netflix shows, or reads a book or two. She enjoys red wine, dark chocolate, cake, and can talk your ears off about delicious food. Travelling is high on her list, whether alone, with friends or family.
Michelle lives in Ontario, Canada with her husband, two amazing children and a cuddly maltese-yorkie dog named Scarlet.
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The first time Taylor Wagner met Jordana West last Christmas, he knew she was mischief incarnate. But he came to her rescue anyway when her irate husband tried to cause her harm. This year, she's the one rescuing him to get back on his ex-girlfriend who had cheated on him and is about to marry his former best friend. Both Jordana and Taylor hope they stay in Santa's nice list, but spending time together and pretending to be lovers could send them over to the naughty side.